Nice-looking Essex girls afloat!

PUBLISHED: 13:09 17 January 2012 | UPDATED: 13:50 17 January 2012

AFLOAT OFF ESSEX: 'Blackwater Gals'. Photo: Den Phillips

AFLOAT OFF ESSEX: 'Blackwater Gals'. Photo: Den Phillips


It should win a prize for the book with the most enticing title. STEVEN RUSSELL looks between the covers and speaks to its author

WHEN David Starling was asked to write a book, it was no hardship. For one thing, it was in a good cause – raising money to support the women and girls of Essex. For another, it was about fine old sailing boats – the kind that have stories fused into the grain of their wood. For David, who sailed the east coast for six decades, putting together Nice-Looking (Essex) Girls Afloat was delightful.

Eh? Oh, the title. It’s drawn from the words of the old Wivenhoe shipwright in the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1880 novel Mehalah: “. . . a regular Essex marshland name. I hope I shall remember it. But I have to carry so many names of nice-looking girls in my head, and of ships I have built, that they run one another down, and I cannot be sure to recall them”.

The book, 40 pages long and with 60 illustrations, explores the “lives” of more than 100 vessels of one type or another that are united by the fact they came from Essex and carried a girl’s name.

They range from working boats such as smacks, bawleys and barges to Trinity House vessels, lifeboats and the craft that went to Dunkirk to help evacuate the troops during the Second World War. There are dinghies that appeared in films, a boat lying at the bottom of Lake Superior, and Boadicea – still sailing more than 200 years after first taking to the water.

It’s fitting that such a book focuses on Essex, since it has the longest coastline of any English county: 50 miles or so at first glance; nearer 400 once its creeks, islands and estuaries are explored.

“On this journey over the centuries you would have met fishermen, bargemen, smugglers, boat-builders, wildfowlers and the captains and crews of the great yachts,” writes the author.

“You would also have met their grandmothers, mothers, wives, daughters and granddaughters, most as tough as their men – sometimes more so, because it was they who had to hold the family together through hardships and adversity.

“You would then have begun to understand why so many of these men named their vessels for their women.”

The little episodes David writes about do not generally end in misfortune, but it’s worth remembering that – at sea – tragedy is never far away. (This week’s powerful winds show how the elements can test us.)

He points out how the failure of boats and crews to return “has been a recurring theme over the centuries for those Essex men and their families for whom the sea has been not just their living but their way of life; building and sailing the barges, oyster smacks and great yachts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

“It is no wonder that the smackmen, who braved the winter gales to fish the North Sea, would also turn out in the great gale and snow storm of December 1875 to go to the aid of the Deutschland aground on the Kentish Knock.” (A sandbank off Harwich.)

The book also explains how tiles around All Saints Church in Brightlingsea records the local men claimed by the sea since 1872 – the idea of the Rev Arthur Pertwee.

“The great gale of March 1883 took the lives of nineteen Brightlingsea men from three smacks (out of a Brightlingsea fleet of fifteen) which foundered without trace off the Terschelling Banks. Thirty-two children were left fatherless.”

Enough gloom. Let’s look at some of the “Essex girls” afloat.

One – Boadicea – helps maintain the memory of the East Anglian queen who defeated the Roman occupiers in Colchester and London. The oyster smack built in 1808 is probably the oldest sailing vessel in Europe still in regular use, points out David.

She worked commercially until 1938 and since then has been owned by the same family, “working the boat for pleasure under sail, pulling a trawl or oyster dredges in order to keep the old skills alive.

“During the spring and summer Boadicea can be found regularly racing against other smacks and classic yachts and in a stiff breeze she very much holds her own. During the autumn she still drift-nets for herring.”

• Sixteen Thames barges were part of the heroic fleet – the flotilla of about 700 “little ships” – that evacuated 338,266 British and allied soldiers from Dunkirk in the summer of 1940.

Ten were sunk. Seven of them carried girls’ names: Ipswich malster R & W Paul’s Barbara Jean and Aidie the only Essex vessels, built in Brightlingsea in 1924 and named after the daughters of Russell Paul.

Six of the 16 barges were owned by the firm, including Ena, built in the Navy Yard at Harwich in 1906. “Ena’s part in the evacuation is the stuff of legend,” says David.

The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships reports that she and other vessels suffered constant air attack during their crossing and her skipper had to beach her.

As the Nazis closed in, the crews of Ena and another barge, the H.A.C., were ordered to abandon their ships and escape on a minesweeper to England.

Eye-witness accounts talk of 30 men of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment arriving on La Panne beach and not believing their luck at finding two barges in seaworthy condition anchored and almost afloat.

They boarded the H.A.C. and men of the 19th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, took Ena. By breakfast-time they were under sail – crossing the Channel under constant bombardment and machine-gun fire.

Eventually, Ena was picked up by a tug or fleet auxiliary and taken into Margate, then towed out and left anchored off Deal.

The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships reports: “The shipping manager of R & W Paul, who had presumed the Ena lost on the beaches of Dunkirk, was amazed when he was told and asked what he proposed to do about it. Alfred Page, her skipper, by then back in Ipswich, was sent to recover her.

“He found the Ena seaworthy but stripped of all her gear. ‘They had taken the sweeps, mooring lines, fenders and even my false teeth which I had left behind in a glass of water by my bunk!’ he said. ‘You can’t trust these men of Kent!’ So he sailed her back to Ipswich.”

For 25 years Ena competed in barge matches on the Thames, the Medway, Blackwater and Orwell.

• One of the boats with Essex links – a 50ft gaff-rigged yawl (two masts and four-sided sail) – will be making news in 2012: its 100th year.

Duet – now operated by Essex-based The Cirdan Sailing Trust and giving groups of young people an experience of life afloat – will be circumnavigating Britain anti-clockwise to mark the Olympics.

She was christened Gaviota – Spanish for sea-gull – when built in 1912.

Arctic explorer Augustine (August) Courtauld bought her in the 1930s after being rescued from an icy and snowy near-grave in Greenland – six weeks trapped alone in a buried igloo – and marrying his bride, Mollie. He renamed the yacht Duet. (Apparently a reasonably popular girl’s name in America, reports David, following an internet search!)

The couple cruised in Duet, and the vessel took part in offshore races.

Courtauld had been raised in Essex. In 1937 he bought an 18th Century country house called Spencers at Great Yeldham, near Halstead.

August was a local magistrate, sat on Essex County Council and in the 1950s was High Sheriff of Essex. Sadly, he developed multiple sclerosis in his late 40s and died in his mid-50s.

Duet was inherited by one of August’s children – vicar Christopher, who lives near Felixstowe and, coincidentally, had a next-door room to David Starling at school back in 1948.

She was on loan to the Ocean Youth Club/Trust from 1960 to 1994 and is now lent to The Cirdan Sailing Trust. Duet has taken to sea about 8,000 young people – many of them socially, physically or mentally disadvantaged – “and, for certain, changed for the better the lives of many of them”, says David.

It was another Courtauld – George, Vice Lord Lieutenant of Essex – who asked David to write the book.

Mr Courtauld is chairman of The Essex Women’s Advisory Group, set up a couple of years ago or so to show that Essex women have a lot to be proud of and to combat the clichéd image of stiletto heels.

The charity supports the well-being of Essex women and girls by promoting self-esteem, instilling pride in the county and by helping females between the ages of 14 and 30 who might need it.

It has also set up the Essex Girls’ Fund, managed by Essex Community Foundation to support charities working with and supporting women and girls in the county.

All proceeds from the sale of the book will go to these charities.

David is a member of EWAG’s advisory group. (He remembers a quip he made during an interview on BBC Radio Essex: that George Courtauld extended the invitation because he was lonely as a greatly-outnumbered man among a group of wise women!)

David learned to sail between Trieste and Venice, after going out to Italy in 1956. His father was a soldier there at the end of the war.

Later, David’s father and step-mother lived at Theberton, near Saxmundham, and the youngster sailed a Lapwing from Aldeburgh. “I’ve sailed up and down this east coast for all of my life.”

After leaving school, and having five years in the Navy, he went into the City. “Sat at the same desk for 35 years; continued sailing up and down the east coast.”

The first house he ever had, bought as a bachelor in 1964, was a little ferryman’s cottage in Wivenhoe. Later, he and his wife would head towards East Anglia most weekends with their children, keeping a little boat in Pyefleet Creek, north of Mersea Island, much of the time.

Since 1994 David has lived near Witham and no longer sails, “because the garden’s too big, really, and takes my time”. Boats, and their stories, still have a firm place in his heart, however.

n Nice-Looking (Essex) Girls Afloat costs £12.95 and is available from Amazon, EWAG ( and the author on